01 April 2009

Building a Moral Fantasy World

An acquaintance of mine, Karin Alfelt Childs (a cousin-by-marriage, incidentally, of my eternally perplexed Stephen Gyllenhaal), owns and runs with her husband a small press up in Michigan called Fountain Publishing, which specializes in works inspired by the Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. I've reviewed Swedenborgian writing before—most notably the comprehensive Answer books by Candace Frazee, another friend and devout member of the New Church—but I've always been a little hard-pressed to find any Swedenborgian works of fiction. Karin's two YA novels, The Temple of Wisdom and its sequel, The Balm of Gilead, come the closest.

I have to say first off that these are handsome paperbacks I'd be proud to give to any Swedenborgian or other Christian, particularly young teenagers. The narration flows naturally and the two stories are engaging. Happily there is a minimum of moralizing. The simple message of these books, in fact, can be appreciated in both the religious and secular worlds: Understand yourself. Own your thoughts. Pay attention to your moral compass.

The youthful heroes here—this is a Prince-and-His-Companions-on-a-Quest saga—are highly sympathetic. Calling upon the virtues of compassion, bravery, humility, and honesty, they battle villains who are liars, cheats, and mind-enslavers. Although Temple ends with a romantic pledge and Gilead begins with wedding plans, the relationship between the two main characters, the young prince and the peasant girl, is more emotional than sexual, and their commitment to each other is informed by mutual respect.

So warmly do I feel toward these books that I hesitate to point out their flaws, which stem from the author's uncertainty in conveying movement in the actual physical world and her inability to adequately describe the strange beauty of her fantasy landscape. That this landscape is based on the heavenly visions of Swedenborg himself makes this a pity, because it sounds like a wonderful place I'd love to linger in as a reader.

Swedenborg once said, in so many words, that we should approach God with the sense of wonder and curiosity of an adolescent. That being the case, Karin's books present the perfect Swedeborgian parable.

~ Cantara Christopher

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